US Army to develop robotic flies that can spy

US Army to develop robotic flies that can spy

US Army researchers aim to develop tiny robotic flies that could buzz into an enemy operations center for surveillance.

Dr Ron Polcawich and his team at the US Army Research Laboratory, known as ARL, in Adelphi, Maryland, have developed a pair of tiny robotic wings measuring only 3 to 5 centimetres in length.

The wings are made of lead zirconium titanate, referred to as PZT, a material that creates electric charge under an applied pressure or can create strain (ie motion) under an applied voltage or electric field.

The wings bend and flap when voltage is applied to the PZT material.
"We demonstrated that we can actually create lift. So we know this structure has the potential to fly," Polcawich said.

Polcawich heads the piezoelectric microelectromechanical systems, or PiezoMEMS team, at ARL. They have designed ultrasonic motors that measure only 2 to 3 millimetres in diameter.

They have also designed sets of tiny robotic legs for a millipede-like robot that simulate crawling when voltage is applied to the PZT material.

While the legs and wings are currently functional, Polcawich said it may take another 10 to 15 years of research and development to actually produce fully-functional robotic insects.

For instance, algorithms are needed to simulate how a flying insect stabilises itself, he said.

In a gust of wind a fly "doesn't instantaneously stabilise itself. It will tumble, tumble, and then stabilise itself," Polcawich said.

Creating this type of artificial intelligence or "cognitive ability" will take time, he explained.

A number of different systems must be integrated in order to develop a realistic tiny robot that functions like an insect.

Harvard University's Ron Wood is actually further along in developing a robotic fly, Polcawich said.

But Harvard's "RoboFly" is almost three times larger than the one ARL is working to develop. And the smaller a mechanical device, the more intricate are the aerodynamic problems, Polcawich said.

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